The Fall review

The Fall_20160101233400

This review is from a while back, originally published on a buddy’s website. Itsy-bitsy spoilers ahead, but nothing to ruin your fun if you wanna play. Also, sequel coming in early 2017, so look out for that if you like this one.

What a wonderful little old-school game this is. The Fall, a truly indie effort from Over the Moon (OtM), is a sci-fi tale that recently gave me a tight kick to the groin.

Story comes first here and it drives you right through the haunting atmosphere of dirt and grime of the game’s world and its many intentionally counter-intuitive puzzles. The Fall really does start with a major fall, as an astronaut-looking figure crashes on an unknown planet in his military space suit. But the guy, we are made to understand, is likely severely injured. Meanwhile, you play as A.R.I.D. (Autonomous Robotic Interface Device), a military-grade AI “on-board” his Mark 7 space suit (Descartes, I hate you), and you’re trying to follow your directives by getting medical help for the pilot. As it happens (perhaps not coincidentally), your initial crash landing takes you to the lower levels of some mysterious facility on the outskirts of the outskirts. Here, in this hi-tech setting yet decrepit, ARID hopes medical assistance can be found. So you look around and The Fall is most overtly about finding that assistance–across the facility/base full of “depurposed” robots and who knows what else.

As you soon find out, under these unexpected circumstances, following protocol–framed like a modified version of Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics–will turn out to be very tricky. Sometimes the opposite of straightforward, actually. Hence the problem with some of the puzzles that you’ll find frustrating even though they make good sense in themselves. And making a military robot do house chores calls for some unexpected point-and-click moves.

ARID will also have to shoot things, but combat is kept to a minimum and satisfying at the same time, involving elements of cover-shooting and takedowns and such, and serving to underscore the fact that the facility’s got some claws and you’re not there to just play logical games. You can actually die. But the combat parts are not as difficult or intense as to discourage those who are in it for the exploration. Quite the opposite, they underscore its thrill by raising the stakes.

Beneath this literal level–itself engaging enough with where the coherent story finally takes ARID–lies a deeper layer of The Fall as an allegory of yearning for something like a difficult freedom achievable through navigating a system of rigid rules that are not only external but have been implanted into your very heart. Wait, scratch that. The game is cool and smart but it’s not pretentious like that, and in fact the developers make fun at various mis- and over-interpretations of The Fall in the commentary available in-game. But there is something allegorical there, no doubt, and there’s freedom and contradiction and system playing off of one another to great effect, which is why the game is a fertile site of varied interpretations to begin with.

But, importantly for a video game, do you have fun playing? Absolutely. The developers thought things through deeply. The presentation is impressive overall while retaining a simple, bare-bones feel. The color palette of pale blue, gray and black, emphasizes the alienating darkness of the decaying place you get to traverse, interrupted by the the white of your flash light and the blood red of LEDs and lasers.

There is some gore and violence in the Fall, but none of it is cheap, instead adding to the overall atmosphere of dread and vulnerability that you feel as a player but that ARID, being a military AI and all, cuts through like a scalpel on its (her?) way to save the pilot. Her mechanical style of movement reminds you, if you are prone to forgetting, that you’re indeed playing as an AI, even if it’s stylized as female. The same is achieved by the inventive synchronization of the play screen with the menu screen, which not only hosts a limited number of player options but also ARID’s operating parameters and available systems.

For such a small game, The Fall includes surprisingly much voice acting, all of which is very well done, to the point, and meaningful in pushing the story forward. The sound design beyond voice work is a powerful atmosphere-creating vehicle for the game, contributing as much to the overall feel as the do graphics, punctuating more dynamic moments with gritty beats and otherwise droning on in your ears.

Complaints? A few minor ones. The PS4 controller could use some customization options in the menu. The controls are workable as they are, but unlike the puzzles, their being counter-intuitive brings nothing good to the table. (I hear the PC controls are likewise pretty weird.)

Speaking of puzzles, as other reviewers have pointed out, there should be more attention put into making their solution feel necessary. Why go about 20 steps solving a puzzle as required in the game when it’d be easier to just shoot the thing? And yet you can’t. The Fall should do a better job letting you always do the puzzles as the sensible thing.

The penultimate criticisms pertain to graphics/animation. When you make ARID turn around, you could use some actual animation showing her turn around instead of just a *blip* left, *blip* right, with nothing in between. There’s a lot of character movement in this game, so its animation is worth every minute of work to make it look as good as possible. Last thing, the halo-like lighting effect that makes the center of the game screen brighter, it would look much better if it was smoothened.

As it is, it sort of looks shitty sometimes. Check it especially when you enter an elevator and the screen goes dark except for that effect alone. Then it’s especially bad and, frankly, I don’t know why it even stays on. The Fall’s visual style has been compared to that of Limbo, and it’d be good if a lesson or two were learned from the brilliance of that game’s lighting techniques and execution. Maybe it’s a matter of money, I don’t know. But I’m sure just a bit softer touch with that halo effect would do nicely.

And the really final critical remark is even simpler: You know how many times my controller vibrated throughout the whole playthrough? Zero. Taking away from the tactile feel of the game, passing on a readily available way of enriching the sensory experience of your product? That’s a big NO, OtM. A big NO.

The Fall is largely a game of solitude, but you’ll also encounter traces and hints of human presence in it, and what you see is a sorry picture of progressively disabled and deskilled beings-turned-assholes in their aspirations for comfort and ease. Pretty much where industrial society is going, anyway, and it’s always nice for a game to poke fun at the perils of technology while itself being the fruit of technological alienation.

In fact, there’s critique of technology implicitly written into numerous aspects of the game with its gnawing sense of things gone wrong. The Fall lands among the best dystopian SF, among works that sneak in the fear of a technified world behind the backs of slick, cool machines.

The Fall deals with AI much better than SOMA, with which I was harsh recently for relying on cheap and unrealistic transhumanist tropes for its treatment of consciousness and additionally for making a big deal out of it. Arid is done much better than both SOMA’s Simon and Catherine, hands down, and on top of that OtM’s touch is more subtle than the developers’ of SOMA.

Even though OtM said ARID is the AI “on-board” the combat suit, and I repeated that, it feels throughout as if she actually is the suit (ergo an embodied consciousness, ergo less of an untenable mentalism problem). Plus, didn’t I say it’s an allegory? In the end, it’s SOMA’s WAU that stands alone in these two games as the AI iteration I can buy into. And it’s a fucking creepy one. ARID’s “human” side in The Fall I’d suggest to take as an “interface representation,” a shorthand for us, the players.

The Fall plots a concise, deep story with impressive old-school presentation that brings some new with it even as it satisfies nostalgia in a gamer that grew up back when games had more heart. Even where there is space for improvement, there’s also space to do it: The Fall is a stand-alone but also part of a trilogy, so we potentially have two more little gems coming our way from Over the Moon. Bring them on!

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